Photo/IllutrationFrederik Obermaier, a reporter for Sueddeutsche Zeitung, speaks during a recent interview. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Frederik Obermaier, a reporter for the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, was interviewed by reporters from The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily newspaper, Kyodo News and Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK).

Obermaier and his colleagues received a large data leak dubbed the Paradise Papers and shared it with The Asahi Shimbun, Kyodo News and NHK through the global collaboration organized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington, D.C.

Obermaier, who was born in March 1984, studied political science and journalism in Germany. He did a two-year traineeship at Sueddeutsche Zeitung from 2010, and started working at the newspaper’s investigative department in 2012. The interview was held on March 28, 2017, at the headquarters building of Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, Germany, where a meeting had been held among members of the project, which is called “Athena” internally.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

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Reporters: The first question, could you describe how and when this leak came to you? Please answer as long as it is OK with you.

Obermaier: Well, as a matter of a general policy, Sueddeutsche Zeitung does not comment on its sources, so I hope you understand that we can’t, due to the protection of our sources, tell you anything about it.

Q: It is not just one single source, right?

A: As I said, I do not comment on Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s sources. But what we now work on, under the ICIJ code name Athena, is a project that is apparently a project covering several leaks, because it’s data from one offshore provider called Appleby. Another is called Asia City. And then, furthermore, 19 different company registries.

But on the whole, this project is opening a huge doorway to the formerly secretive offshore world. So, what this leak tells us is we do now really see what is going on in the offshore world, and we also do see how the offshore business reacted to former leaks, because we can see in the data how, for example, this whole business sector reacted to Offshore Leaks or the Panama Papers.

So this is, by far--covers more facets of the offshore world and of the offshore business.

Q: What do you think about the quality of reporting in this case?

A: I think we are currently living in a world where there have been many leaks already, leaks in the financial sector. There was the Swiss Leaks, Luxembourg Leaks, Offshore Leaks. There have been whistle-blowers who are handing over documents to authorities. But we see this world still exists and the offshore businesses, they reacted.

I think this leak now will be a huge blow for the offshore industry because this is transparency within a second. When this leak goes public, this will be a unique opportunity to look into what is going on, and I think to a huge part of the offshore world it will be the end of intransparency and secrecy.

Q: Do you think our success or our practice of journalism in the Panama Papers project prompted the whistle-blower or whistle-blowers to leak these important documents?

A: Well, the Panama Papers, in general, proved that it is possible to leak information to not only one media outlet but to leak it to one media outlet and that, the media outlet, can work with hundreds of partners, all around the world, and still the whistle-blower can stay protected and anonymous.

And I had the impression, after the Panama Papers, that not only in the offshore sector but in several different sectors all around the world, whistle-blowers thought about, “Well, we have seen it is possible.” So they turned to other--to media, they turned to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and we also hear it from other media outlets, that they received data from whistle-blowers, not only from the financial sector but also from in the sports sector, because the Panama Papers has proven that it is possible.

Q: Can I say that the sources are kinds of whistle-blowers?

A: I do consider people uncovering wrongdoing in a sector, for sure, as whistle-blowers.

Q: It seems to me that there has been a chain reaction of whistle-blowing and investigative reporting. Because we have seen the Offshore Leaks, the Luxembourg Leaks, Swiss Leaks, the Panama Papers, and Bahama Leaks. What is your opinion of that?

A: I think that whatever sector you look at, if it’s in the intelligence sector or the financial industry, if there is one case of whistle-blowing and it does go public, and when the public sees that the whistle-blower is still safe and protected, I think this always encourages people that do see wrongdoing, to think, “Maybe I should also turn to journalists, to authorities, to the public.”

Q: In this project, it seems like the more partners joined and the scale of collaborative journalism grew. Why do you think this has happened? Why are you going in that way?

A: Well, I think we are still in interesting times, when the mind set of journalists is in change, because formerly, especially investigative journalism, was the lone wolf model, you working alone, always fearing that there might be others scooping you. And then there was the thought--I think ICIJ did a lot in this field--they did start, with offshore leaks, trying to convince journalists to share. And they proved it from project to project that it’s possible, and they proved that it’s better the more you share, the more radical you share.

And I think the Panama Papers was the latest example of it, because it was such a big cooperation and still all partners, in my opinion, have seen that it’s worth sharing, that it’s worth sharing radically, not only data as Sueddeutsche Zeitung has done it, but also findings, to share what you have found in the data.

I think media all around the world do see that this is a success model, a successful model. And I think that’s the reason why more and more journalists and media outlets are reaching out to organizations like ICIJ, asking to be part of such a team and promising to stick to the rules.

And I think we are still at the beginning. I think there are so many topics still to be covered, from bigger parts, from bigger groups, and transnational working groups, because we are living in a globalized world where nearly every scandal is not focused on one nation; it’s international scandals. So it’s only logical to cover those international scandals with an international team.

And I really hope that this is a model, an example that succeeds in the end, that there will be more and more collaborations because we are living in a world where there’s many problems and many changes. So, I think we should go on, muckrake and collaborate.

Q: Yesterday and today, you, for the first time, you saw all of the whole team, consisting of more than 100 members--so what was your feeling? What did you feel?

A: I must admit it was a very warm feeling. Seeing this crowd gathering here together and seeing how they react and interact now, it really feels like a family gathering. It was--I could really sense the trust in this group, and it was an excitement, and knowing that this whole group wanted to do the same thing is like working and investigating.

We are all sharing the same ideals. We want to uncover wrongdoings. And that’s an amazing feeling to see, because seeing this group makes you realize that you are part of this big group and you are all working together.

And it’s, for me, now, thinking about it, what happened, I really feel like shivering--because it’s, like, you see the colleagues from India, from Africa, from Latin America, from the U.S., and all are doing the same thing! We share the same ideals and we are all investigative journalists, and that’s amazing! Because it shows, also, the power of investigative journalism.

Q: Could you tell me what do you think about--what would you think of about--the future of this kind of cross-border collaborative investigative journalism?

A: I think, even in a smaller scale, people and journalists learned that it’s worth collaborating. I mean, we are not only, at Sueddeutsche Zeitung--we are not only doing projects on the scale of the Panama Papers, but we are working on small stories also! And sometimes it’s only us working with, for example, our Austrian colleagues, because Austria is a neighboring country. Or with our Swiss colleagues, on small projects. And still we do see, even in the smaller scale, it’s worth collaborating because, in the end, it’s a huge step for us to share everything, but you soon realize that you get something back. And in the end the story is better than it would have been without collaboration.

Q: I’d like to ask you a few questions about yourself. How long have you covered the tax havens story?

A: I started with offshore investigations, with the project Offshore Leaks. I was new in our investigative department here. Before, I mainly covered extremism, left wing, right wing, Islamism, and intelligence issues. But with Offshore Leaks, we saw that we needed a bigger team, to go into--I mean, Offshore Leaks was, at that time, the biggest leak ever in the hands of journalism. It was 260 gigabytes.

Now, in our day, when we speak about terabytes, this seems small, but at that time that was such a big mountain of data! And Sueddeutsche Zeitung assigned a small team of four colleagues. I was part of that team, investigating those issues.

Afterward, my colleague, Bastian Obermayer and I became members of ICIJ and we went on with this field, because it’s, for me, a thrilling field. And I think, although investigations in regards to offshore companies, to some audiences it may sound very technical and very--I mean, it’s not emotional--but I have realized that it affects our everyday lives, because tax havens--if we speak about tax havens and offshore companies--it’s not only about tax dodging or tax evasion; it’s about corruption, it’s about sanctions breaching, it’s about financing wars and it’s about looting whole continents. And I think these are topics that are not only important for one nation, but it’s important for the whole world, to know about it.

Q: Could you tell me what you think are the good points and bad points of the Panama Papers coverage?

A: Well, as always in such projects, there are mistakes you possibly make. Until today, I am not aware of a big, major mistake, and I’m really happy, because one mistake could ruin a whole project.

But, of course, there were small mistakes. I don’t want to make them public now because sometimes it affects colleagues. In most cases it affects me. (Laughs lightly) So--but, of course, we learn from such projects and we grow from such projects.

I think what was amazing for me to see during the Panama Papers is how this big group of journalists worked together and how now, even now, more than a year after the Panama Papers, the discussion is still on-going. It showed how important this issue was for the world and that it was not something like “publish and forget;” it was something like the readers, and the audience, still remembers and still is aware of the fact, what we published.

Q: In your country, is it common to share your information and collaborate with other media as well?

A: Sueddeutsche Zeitung does cooperate with other media outlets in Germany. I must admit, it’s TV and radio. Because, for us, it’s easier. As a print newspaper, collaborating with TV and radio is kind of a different audience.

But we are also thinking about ways of cooperating and collaborating with other print media, for example, because we still really believe in the idea of sharing, and there are topics that are too big for one and too important for one media outlet.

So, I think it may be hard for owners, for media owners, to think about sharing something, but I--and I have the impression the owners of Sueddeutsche Zeitung as well--have seen what is the value and what you can gain through sharing.

Q: The same with Japan, I think.

A: I mean, you have to know, in Germany we have, apart even from this project, we have an on-going collaboration with two public broadcasters so we have, each week, one time, a telephone conference, where we share ideas, what we are working on, and we think about where it’s well to collaborate.

There are topics where we don’t want to collaborate, because we think they are too small, or they are, even, affecting the other media outlet. That’s also possible. But, in the big issues like, for example, these ICIJ collaborations, we share everything with them. We did a joint investigation, for example, in regards to Islamism, to terrorism, because these are important and big topics, that need to be covered by a big group of journalists.

Q: So, you have been doing this kind of collaboration regularly, with the broadcasters, like on Islamism or extremism or something like that? So, is it a regular thing for you?

A: Yes. I mean, in Germany there’s even a name for it. It’s the investigative collaboration between Sueddeutsche Zeitung, public broadcaster NDR and public broadcaster WDR. So, if you watch the news in Germany, you regularly come across this kind of label, because they refer to--other media pick up the stories and investigation of this. It’s a news corporation but its name and it stands for “in-depth reporting, in-depth investigations.”

Q: That’s amazing. When do you think this trend began?

A: In Germany, I think it was, like, four or five years ago. And it started, in our case, with one person, actually. It was one colleague leaving a media outlet here in Germany and looking--having the idea that he wanted to do print and film. So, he reached out to us and to a public broadcaster, and we then settled with the public broadcaster that there’s a way to both work with him, because he’s an amazing colleague and an amazing investigative journalist.

And that was the start of this collaboration. And it grew and grew and grew and now it’s, I would say, on each team it’s five or six colleagues regularly being part of joint investigations.

Q: So, you mean, one independent journalist made a bridge, built a bridge?

A: Yes. I mean, he was then not an independent journalist anymore, or he was an independent journalist but no freelancer anymore, because he worked for Sueddeutsche and for one broadcaster, but the idea grew with this person.

Q: Your company got information that is shaping the world.

A: And that’s still a strange feeling. Because, for us, it started as a small project and then seeing, now--that what happened afterwards--and it’s still strange. And there are sometimes it’s really strange to go to foreign countries because--realizing that people recognize you, it’s really--it’s not a feeling I would like. So, I do understand actors and prominent people now, that they don’t want to be in the public eye, because it’s strange, people recognizing you.

Q: Have you felt some difficulties on this topic?

A: Well, of course there were always moments when you fear a little bit, or when you make things up, when I couldn’t sleep. Then I imagined some worst-case scenarios, what could happen. But I now feel really safe, and it is always meetings like this one that remind me what a safe environment we are working in here in Germany.

Because, can you remember yesterday, when our colleague from the Middle East stood up and said, “Well, what has happened?”

Or, “What is your plan when somebody gets arrested or something worse happens?”

And it was, for me, like yeah, we always have to keep that in mind. I think you in Japan, me in Germany, we are working in safe countries. But those are colleagues that are working in a very, very dangerous environment.

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Visit The Asahi Shimbun's special website on the Paradise Papers for videos, photos and graphics on how journalists dug into the more than 13 million documents leaked from Bermuda and elsewhere to uncover shady transactions through tax havens.